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Parental involvement overrated? Don't buy it

By Todd Rogers, Lucas Coffman and Peter Bergman
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Keeping parents informed about their children's progress in school can help with homework completion, the authors say.
Keeping parents informed about their children's progress in school can help with homework completion, the authors say.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Recent articles said helping children with schoolwork has little value
  • They say it's a misreading of research because kids getting help often fare poorly anyway
  • They say numerous studies show grades, attendance improve when parents onboard
  • Writers: Texting parents on progress, holding meetings with teachers critical to success

Editor's note: Todd Rogers is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Lucas Coffman is assistant professor of economics at Ohio State University. Peter Bergman is assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- Should you be involved with your children's schooling?

Several recent articles have questioned the common belief that parent involvement is critical to improving student performance in school. One recent New York Times op-ed, titled "Parental Involvement Is Overrated," and an Atlantic piece called "Don't Help Your Kids With Their Homework," touched off a heated discussion online suggesting that parental involvement is of surprisingly little value to student achievement and, if anything, does more harm than good.

This interpretation of the evidence is misguided. Worse, it sends a dangerous message to families and policymakers: Encouraging parental involvement is unlikely to improve educational outcomes or reduce achievement gaps.

Todd Rogers
Todd Rogers
Lucas Coffman
Lucas Coffman
Peter Bergman
Peter Bergman

Citing their research, the authors of the Times piece, Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris, describe provocative findings that show that students of parents who are very involved in their children's education perform worse than students of parents who are less involved.

While the authors control for certain variables, their research only implies there is a relationship between parental involvement and student performance. This caveat is important; the existence of a relationship does not tell us what causes what.

Think of it this way: If you had two children, and one was getting A's and the other C's, which of them would you help more? The C student. An outsider, noticing that you've spent the school year helping only one of your children, might infer that parental help caused that child to earn lower grades. This of course would not be the case, and inferring causation here would be a mistake.

Fortunately, a rapidly growing body of research -- including our own -- looks at whether low-cost parental engagement interventions can cause changes in student performance. We are researchers in economics and psychology who conduct randomized controlled experiments in educational settings.

Randomized experiments, modeled after medical clinical trials, are the "gold standard" for understanding whether a given behavior causes a change in a specific outcome. Results from these experiments suggest that involving parents is a potent, cost-effective and scalable way to increase student achievement in a number of settings.

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Highlights from this new literature include interventions in low-income areas of Brazil, France, India and the United States. Sending parents whose high school children attended school in a low-income area of Los Angeles text messages when their kids miss assignments can cause student performance to increase as much as high-performing charter schools cause student performance to increase. In France, inviting parents to meetings with school staff on how to navigate the transition to middle school and also providing materials on the roles of different school personnel reduces truancy by 25%.

Paying low-income parents in India to improve their children's literacy can be as effective at increasing child literacy as paying the children directly, especially if the parents are literate and have the time and resources to devote to their children. Providing literacy classes for mothers in India can meaningfully increase children's test scores. Asking Boston teachers to call middle school parents in the evening to let them know about their children's academic progress, behavior and upcoming assignments can cut in-class misbehavior by 25% and improve on-time homework completion by 40%.

Delivering brief messages to parents on a weekly basis about what their children are doing well and doing poorly can cut summer school dropout rate almost in half. Sending parents two letters and providing access to a website with information about the usefulness of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, classes can increase the number of STEM classes their high school children take by one full semester. Texting poor parents in Brazil if their child skips school can empower parents to compel the child to attend school.

Informing parents of public schools' average test scores leads parents to choose higher performing schools for their children. At H&R Block, allowing parents the option to have a federal financial aid form auto-filled for them using their tax return data can increase the likelihood that their child completes two years of college over the next three years from 28% to 36%. This is a new area of research, and there are more questions than answers, but the results are extremely promising and mutually supporting.

Parents are a cornerstone of educational success, and we need policies that empower, inform and involve them. The good news is that research on what kinds of cost-effective policies this entails is under way.

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